Shepherding. Discipleship. Member development and conservation.
Church leaders know each of these functions is critical if their congregation is to be healthy and fruitful.
We know assimilation and development of individual Christians is important, because we’ve read the Scriptures that explain what should happen in the lives of those we evangelize.
In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Jesus clearly indicates that we are to teach new believers “to observe all that I commanded you.”1 Teaching and development need to occur after evangelism.
Colossians is replete with the apostle Paul’s desire for the believer’s maturity. Paul writes, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
In his first epistle, Peter clearly gives church leaders instructions about this critical aspect of ministry when he writes, “Shepherd the flock of God among you . . . proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3). Clearly, God is calling his leaders to take care of the members of the church, developing ways to stimulate their spiritual growth and maturity.
It’s Not Happening
But in many congregations, this simply is not being accomplished effectively. Most congregations do not have a clear, organized strategy for bringing their members to a significant level of spiritual maturity.
Why? Why do we still have people coming to Christ, being baptized, attending church for several weeks, and then never darkening the door of the church again? Maybe it’s because leaders just don’t know how to develop a plan that will help Christians grow in their faith and spiritual walk.
Churches have tried many ways to make assimilation happen, too many to mention in this brief article. Of all the methods available to the church today, one of the most effective is a quality, well-executed small groups ministry; it’s possibly the best single approach at our disposal today.
An effective small groups ministry is one that is bathed in prayer; led, supported and promoted by the ministry staff and elders; planned carefully; and executed with intentionality and precision. A church shouldn’t just have a “small groups program”; it should have an effective small groups ministry. An ineffective small groups ministry—one that is not well managed—typically begins, runs for a time, and then falters due to a lack of management and care. This approach to small groups is unhealthy and unfruitful in terms of assimilating members.
But when a church takes small group ministry seriously, the results are edifying. Small groups can be fruitful:
• When the church’s leadership team is supportive and participating.
• When small group leaders are trained properly.
• When members are recruited with care and clarity.
• When group leaders receive the proper motivation and attention.
Believers will be fed, nurtured, cared for, and stimulated to grow in their personal spiritual lives. They will become involved in the body of Christ through this ministry.
It Can Happen!
When small groups are done well, leaders can expect to see the following benefits in people’s lives:
• Loving, relational connections—As people get to know each other week after week in their groups, they begin to feel connected. They find a “belonging place.” Love among members authentically grows, and deep relationships become established. Relationally, people fit and have a group with which to identify.
Authentic community is one of the greatest benefits to small groups and will keep believers in the body of Christ. Remember, people go where the love is. People stay when they feel wanted. Being in a good small group helps make this happen.
• Bible study—People can be spiritually fed with Bible study in small groups. A serious lack of knowledge and understanding of Scripture plagues our churches today. Researcher George Barna points out, “There is shockingly little growth evident in people’s understanding of the fundamental themes of the Scriptures and amazingly little interest in deepening their knowledge and application of biblical principles.”2 When people participate in small groups, the Word of God can feed and nourish them in their journey.
• Prayer—In their book Making Small Groups Work, Henry Cloud and John Townsend state, “Prayer can be one of the small group’s most powerful tools for growth. Coming together for prayer in small groups connects people with God and each other. Corporate prayer brings people together in their faith and love for God and in their dependence on him and each other. It draws us close, vertically and horizontally.”3
• Receiving care when needed—A great benefit of good small groups is the care that attendees receive. When people are in a relationship as brothers and sisters, and when love is the foundation of their relationships, people take care of each other. Whether it be meals during sickness or after childbirth, hospital visits, or other personal needs people experience, the group will come to the aid of those in need. It is the most effective benevolent ministry and requires very little administration since each group takes care of its own.
• Development of spiritual gifts—Groups provide numerous opportunities for service. Hospitality through the opening of each other’s home, teaching, organizing and administration, evangelism, prayer, and acts of service all provide avenues of ministry that help people discover and use their spiritual gifts.
• Emotional, mental, and spiritual buy-in—Encouraging attendees to invest themselves in the life of the congregation can be a real challenge in many churches. Many people today have a consumer mentality (as in, “what can the church do for me?”) As a person or couple becomes involved in the life of a small group, research shows they begin to make a deeper commitment in their emotions, minds, and spirits. Quality small group ministry draws people in and involves them in the life of the church.
After 43 years of ministry, I can honestly say there is no one method more effective than small groups in growing people in Christ. It is not rocket science, nor does it take extreme skills to make good small groups happen. Henry Cloud states, “Small groups are so powerful, and the skills required to lead a small group so learnable, that a lack of ‘know how’ does not need to stand in the way.”4
Whether you are a staff minister, elder, deacon, or ministry team leader, you are possibly responsible in some way for the shepherding and spiritual growth of members of your congregation. If your church has small groups, work to make them more effective. If you do not have a small groups ministry, why not work with other members of the leadership team to begin a life-changing, effective small groups work? The efforts of your leadership team will bear significant fruit as you see believers grow and mature in their personal spiritual journeys.
1 All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
3 Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Making Small Groups Work (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 78.
4 Ibid, 15.
David Roadcup is executive director of the Center for Church Advancement at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.